The artist on catharsis, Houston's Pakistani community and why enjoying life is the only thing.
I was really interested to hear that you originally studied physics before making the shift over to art. How did that come about?
Both of my parents are artists, so I've been surrounded by art all my life. There was this specific space in the house, in the studio, where art was supposed to happen. That place was so daunting for a child to go and create art or do anything. I'd just go in there and mess around a little bit, but then I'd leave.
Then, I started going into physics and math, and I was just good at it. I don't think I actually liked it. I liked the wonder of physics rather than the mathematical side—learning about the stars and the universe because I was always intrigued by how we got here—the wonderment of questions about basic life.
These questions led me to physics and all of these theories. Then I found Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. That book just changed my whole perspective about the world, that the universe is expanding and also contracting. That really intrigued me. But then, as I was growing older, I started going in other directions because my father is also really into music and films. So, I started going into music with the guitar and blues music—just everything different from physics, to be honest.
Maybe I didn't make the connection back then, so I went into photography, and then I went into filmmaking. I was like, "I'll just do that on the side." But you've got to be honest: you've got one life; there's nothing on the side. You've got to do everything in this lifetime. You don't get any second chances.
I was studying physics in the US, but because of a situation, I had to move back to Pakistan, and I couldn't transfer my credits. My father said, "Why don't you try art school?" Then, for Pakistani art schools, there'd be film and everything, but the basic entrance exam is a drawing test. You have to learn how to draw, and I'd never drawn in my life.
I started drawing with my father, but I couldn't learn from my father because I realized the relationship between a father and a son is different. I needed a teacher, so I went to Sir Mohandas, my father's friend, and I started learning. After two or three months, this love for drawing just encapsulated me. All of this life, these 20 years, I hadn't been going, and then it just goes boom.
I started drawing and painting, and then, on my birthday, I went down to my father's studio, a big studio in his basement in Pakistan. But he wasn't there. It was raining and I just started. I took a piece of large paper and began painting on it. Later, my father came back and was like, "This is pretty good." Then it just went off from there.
Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman | YouTube
When you were studying music and film and all of those other things, what were you drawn to in those mediums? And was that different from what you draw from in your work now?
No, I think I see life as this one thing. Even physics sometimes influences the person I'm painting. With music, my father wanted to be a singer. We don't tell anyone that, but he wanted to be a singer. He always had music in his studio and he used to sing when he didn't think anyone was listening to him.
He likes to listen to old Indian music, so I went the complete opposite way. I went to old blues and Southern music. It's completely different from my own identity, but I saw so much of the same suffering there. I saw so many of the same emotions in Pakistani/South Asian music, American music, and British music. It was just this feeling of wanting something, but you don't know what you want. I think that's what I gravitate toward because it's a very expressionistic thing. It's really emotional and not very technical.
Then with films, I've had a journey with everything. Even one of the paintings on Platform takes its title from an old Indian movie line. I got into Russian filmmaking. I was just watching Tarkovsky and Bergman and all these great names because I was also reading Russian literature by Turgenev, Gogol and Dostoyevsky. I remember reading Crime and Punishment for the first time and I just couldn't get up. I read it for the whole week. No one saw me. It was just that book. I've read it multiple times, and you learn so much about the human condition. That is in my work: how does a man or a woman think?
But the skirmishes over religion, how we got here, and all of the physics stuff, the big bang, intertwine us together, and it's so beautiful. I used to be an angry young man, but now, I'm thinking about all these things. I don't know where I came from, but it's OK; it's good. The only thing is that I've got to enjoy life. It's just that.
Totally. I feel I can sense so much of that in your work. There's something almost haunting about it—the colors, the scenes, everything. I hope this isn't redundant of me to ask, but what is it—perhaps riffing a bit on what you were just mentioning—that compels you to keep exploring those qualities or themes?
Whenever I talk to a very optimistic person, they are like, "You're too depressing, man." But maybe it's just the way that I look at things. It's very different—well, maybe not different, but it could be seen as a depressive viewpoint, looking at life like this. Why are we here? I didn't choose to be here. It's rooted in a Happy Garden philosophy. The anxiety of being like, "I don't have to be here. There were no choices; I was just here." That God was bored, and it's just like that.
Again, with these works, with the haunting aspect and all of this, for me personally, I don't know what my works mean after I finish them. I only know in the process of making them what I'm making. What I have realized through making and meeting people who enjoy my work, or hate my work, is that it's like a catharsis moment, that you might not be alone in the way that you feel about this work. That it's OK to have all of these feelings. It's OK to have anxiety. It's OK.
That's what I have felt because those are the messages that I get from these viewers. For me, it's completely different. It's a way for me to survive this world. It's a way for me to push it to 60 and 70, whatever, right? It's just that. Then when the viewer enters and he or she sees my work, they feel these things and they're like, "OK, I resonate with this because there are moments when I also feel this way." There are moments when, in everyone's life, as much as we try not to focus on these dark moments, they're all there. They can come in a second. One afternoon you're sitting and then you just get lost in these thoughts about an overwhelming sense of being, or an overwhelming sense of just existing. It's just that.
Was there any of feedback, either positive or negative, that's stayed with you strongly?
I can't really quote anything because my memory is completely shit. I struggle with that, to be honest. But I think through meeting people, the most overwhelming thing that's really stuck with me is when I've seen people cry as they view my work. I never expected that. It happened once or twice, and once it was someone really close to me. They saw the work and they thought that they could see themselves in it.
With my work, I try to create a mirror for the viewer to see themselves. That's what I feel when I go to the Rothko chapel or see Rothko's other work. It's like he has removed every single distraction for you to see yourself. He has removed, even in the chapel, the century, every sense. It's only you existing in that moment. With me and my work, I've gone in the complete opposite direction. It's so much information on the surface that once you get in the image, you start resonating with the image and then the resonance creates space for you. They are portraits of the viewer and the creator of the work.
Switching gears a little bit, before we started recording, we spoke about Houston and Texas. What first took you to Texas and what made you decide you wanted to call it home?
Most South Asian people would want to come to Houston because there's such a large community of South Asian people here. When you come here, it's less of a culture shock, to be honest. There are a lot of South Asian communities everywhere in the world, but Houston is more grounded.
There's a friend who just visited me over spring break and he was like, "You know what? I don't think I have ever seen a place like this in the US because it's so diverse." He's also Pakistani and he's been living in Oregon for the past six years. He said, "It feels like a small South Asia." I feel like it protects you when you come here for the first time and then, if you want to go out into the world further then you can do that. I plan on doing that soon.
I fell in love with London. It's such a beautiful place and it's a very bustling city compared to Houston. Houston is so spread out that you've got to drive everywhere. But in London, you take the tube and then you get somewhere. London actually reminded me of Karachi even though Houston also reminds me of Karachi because of the intense weather.
Karachi is my home city in Pakistan. Everyone comes there from different parts of the country to earn a living and then that city just accepts you, wherever you come from. Houston feels like that to me. It doesn't ask any questions. There's been so much learning from and so much connecting with different points of view because if I stay in this bubble, I'm not going to evolve and for an artist, if he doesn't evolve, he's dead.
I feel like there's been so much discussion about Houston, generally, in the past few years: the growth of its food scene, the art scene and beyond. It's overshadowing Austin a bit in the wider conversation, which was the city in Texas people spoke about for a long time.
What are some of the things specific to Houston that you love?
With Houston, you can find food here from Sri Lanka to Mexico to Italy. With Austin, I think the thing was that they catered to Texas barbecue. But over here, you can come and you can have the most authentic chicken biryani you've ever had in America and then you can go to a Texas barbecue place as well. It's that range.
I feel like old bookstores in Houston have always been rejuvenating to me. I find these artists' books, connecting with people who have touched the books before and I see the scribbled lines there sometimes. I can spend maybe four or five hours without anyone asking me to leave. It's one of my favorite things to do in Houston.
Secondly, the Museum of Fine Arts, because they have a beautiful collection and they have these wonderful shows happening every month. They had a [Philip] Guston show here, I think, last month. Then they had an M.C. Escher exhibit and then an Alberto Giacometti show. These are works that I used to look at back in Pakistan on the internet, and I'd think, "I'd be honored. I would die and go to heaven and come back if I ever see these works in person." Then I'm standing in front of a Guston and I'm asking, "How did this dude paint?"
Sometimes, it's so surreal to see all of these things. In Houston, it's a very hidden place, in my opinion. For most people, whenever I tell them, "You should live in Houston," they're like, "Houston, OK. I'll think about it." Because I think, Texas as a whole has a very bad image. A red image. We also struggle with that sometimes, but Houston is very different. I think Houston has changed drastically in the past few years–even in the food alone.
In Pakistan and in South Asia, there's a big trend of waking up late and going to sleep late. I've seen my parents go to sleep at 4:00 am all my life. Here, everything closes down very early. But now, on big occasions like Eid or Ramadan, Pakistani restaurants are open till 3:00 am or 4:00 am. It's bustling, man. The lights, the music, it's crazy. During Chaand Raat, we celebrate at night, after we break the fast. If you go to certain restaurants on that night, there is no place to park. I feel so grateful to the universe, for me to exist in this moment of time, in this space, and to not take it for granted, to visit these spots as much as I can.
You mentioned London with a lot of excitement. Would you ever live anywhere other than Houston or do you feel like that's where you'd like to stay?
I think I will move. In a few years, I think I will branch out to LA or London, because as much as I love the community here, I cannot stay in one place. I feel like I get too stagnant. I also want to go for the Royal Academy of Arts. They do a three-year course. They give you a studio and they just tell you to paint whatever the hell you want to paint. It's amazing. When I visited there, I saw the real art world in London. In Houston, there's a good art world as well, but it's so spaced out, there's no underground, bustling scene that I'm aware of right now. With London, there's so much going on there all the time. Hopefully, I'll move there.
My fingers are crossed for you! It seems like you have a lot on the horizon. What are you most excited about that's coming up?
Right now, I think it's a residency that might happen in LA. I'm really excited to go to LA. just being there and working like crazy. Being in a space with no distractions. It's just the city and you, that's it.
I'm collaborating with an artist in London with works on paper. We exchange sketchbooks with each other by mail. Then we talk a lot about what the basic form of the figure is and what the figure means to a South Asian identity because we were a Colonial society until 1947. The art then was progressing but it was very restrictive.
Europe went through all of these stages with expressionism, impressionism, and then it comes to contemporary art. But with Pakistan and India or other places, it had to restrict itself in the 75 years after it got independence to just run and catch up. I feel like there are a lot of these overarching, old memories. Not old, but people still stuck in them.
You've deep-dived into so many different art forms, music and philosophy books. If you had to give someone a list, a handful of your top favorite films, books, albums that speak to you the most, what would you say?
For albums, it would be The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. Zeppelin's fourth album would be at the top also. I've been listening to a lot of old Indian music also: Mohammad Rafi's work, Jagjit Singh's music.
For film, Tarkovsky–all of his films. Then Spike Jonze. Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. These movies changed my life. Then Guru Dutt is a very old filmmaker from the 1950s. His film changed everything for me in the past few months. He captured the essence of the unknown, the desire for the unknown. Also, Wong Kar-wai. His voice. His films. I can watch his films all day long.
With books, Fathers and Sons by Turgenev, and Dead Souls by Gogol. What else have I been reading? The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. He was a psychologist. He basically said that this life, all of these motivations, come from a fear of death. That I think you can also see a lot of in my work.
OK, last one: what's something you wish you were asked more often?
Can I answer what I wish someone didn't ask?
That would be how long it takes me to make a painting. I hate that question because a work can take a week or a year. You never know when the work's going to finish. I've got paintings from last year that I'm still working on, and then I can just pull out a painting and finish it in two days. You never know how long it's going to take, so I just hate that question. People are intrigued by it, but it's on such a variable scale. An idea can be stuck in your head for the past five years before you can actually work on it. It's just one of those things.